Thursday, February 10, 2011

Book 6 – Ripley Under Ground

Patricia Highsmith

I didn’t mean to read another Highsmith book so soon (see Strangers On a Train) , but I didn’t want to bring the thickish Barney’s Version with me on the train ride to Toronto. I wanted something more economically written and anyway, I was just dying to read the next Ripley installment.

The sequel takes place six years after The Talented Mr Ripley left off. Tom is living comfortably in the French countryside with his modest art collection and recently married to a free-spirited and somewhat amoral French heiress. In the past few years, Tom has somehow gotten himself involved in an art forgery conspiracy, as well as a fencing operation as a side gig. Oh Tom, ever resourceful, ever so shady! Naturally, Tom’s comfortable existence becomes threatened when an American businessman suspects that one of his Derwatt paintings is a fake.

Ripley Under Ground was definitely inferior to The Talented Mr. Ripley. One of the reasons I like the first book so much is because Tom Ripley is a sympathetic character. You could understand why he killed his friend Dickie Greenleaf. There are also certain moments throughout the novel where Ripley contemplates what he has done. With Ripley Under Ground, those moments are fewer and far between, and they don’t ring as true. Perhaps it has to do with the 15 year lag between the first two Ripley books.

The theme of authenticity versus fakery or forgery is explored early on but seems to sputter out after the halfway point. Bernard Tufts is a talented artist in his own right but is psychologically suffering from the years of forging the paintings of his dead friend Derwatt and living a lie. Tom, of course, sees things differently and regards Bernard as a kind of Van Meegeren, and loved the fake Derwatts as much as the real ones. He can’t understand why people like Murchison get so worked up about a fake painting.

He brought up Van Meegeren, with whose career Murchison was acquainted. Van Meegeren’s forgeries of Vermeer had finally achieved some value of their own. Van Meegeren may have stated it first in self-defence, in bravado, but aesthetically there was no doubt that Van Meegeren’s inventions of ‘new’ Vermeers had given pleasure to the people who had bought them.

‘I cannot understand your total disconnection with the truth of things,’ Murchison said. ‘An artist’s style is his truth, his honesty. Has another man the right to copy it, in the same way that a man copies another man’s signature? And for the same purpose, to draw on his reputation, his bank account?...’

The irony is naturally lost on Tom. Though he admires Murchison's intelligence and ends up even liking him (in the wine cellar while his housekeeper is washing dishes upstairs!), he murders Murchison anyway because he couldn’t be convinced to see things Tom’s way, which is skewed but nevertheless has an internal logic of its own.

Several times I had to suspend my disbelief at how Tom could get away with murder, though it is quite funny to read how his neighbours do not notice “his pink and almost bleeding palms, sore from the ropes around Murchison” as they make pleasant chitchat. When he confesses to his co-conspirators about murdering Murchison (Highsmith did have a knack for finding great names), they were dumbfounded but never questioned Tom’s sanity or what they were getting themselves into. There is never really a moment of danger that involves those who are close to Tom (close as in proximity if not in intimacy), his wife or housekeeper, who may suspect him of being a murderer. Tom dispatched Murchison before he could become a real threat. Subsequently his influence on Bernard to commit suicide in Vienna seemed almost effortless (Highsmith did not quite pull off the contrast between the two mentally unstable individuals – one who is emotional-less, the other emotionally volatile). And the London inspector seemed intelligent but conveniently ineffective.

I do enjoy how Highsmith writes about contemporary life in European cities, like how Tom appreciates London graffiti as he spots a defaced poster of the hit 1968 movie Romeo and Juliet and then goes shopping for his wife, buying her a pair of “flared hipsters of black wool, waist twenty-six.” These minute details add a nice flair of sophistication to the setting.

Sadly, due to my disappointment in the sequel, I may postpone reading the third book, Ripley’s Game, which is in Olman’s collection. There are plenty of other on-deck books to read!


Louis XIV, 'The Sun King' (Nick Jones) said...

I'd definitely read Ripley's Game if I were you. It's the best of the series, although Tom's just as emotionless. That's the key really: he's a man without conscience in the four sequels to Talented, so you have to readjust to this version of him. Most of his friends delight (either secretly or openly) in his amoral nature; it's what draws them to him. But then, I'm biased: I much prefer the sequels (esp. Ripley's Game) to Talented.

meezly said...

ah ok, I guess I'll have to learn to let go of my liberal moralistic mindset for the next books ;-) I don't mind adjusting to a full-fledged sociopathic Ripley, as long as it's believable (enough).

thanks for the recommendation -- I won't let Ripley's Game languish on the on-deck shelf for too long!

Craig D. said...

I like this book, inferior as it is to its predecessor. The first half is much stronger than the second, I think. Tom wandering around Europe chasing after Bernard isn't nearly as interesting to me as his masquerading as Derwatt in disguise and musing on the nature of the legitimacy of forgeries.

There's certainly an unrealistic element to all of the books in the Ripley series, in the way that Tom continues to get away with everything through sheer audacity. He's forever suspected but never caught, and it sometimes gets silly when people notice freshly-dug graves or bloodstains and never seem to put two and two together. But I think realism is overrated, and this aspect of the series didn't bother me much.

I hope your disappointment with Ripley Under Ground doesn't deter you from Ripley's Game. Like King Louis up there, I consider it the best of the series. I think, however, that you may not get as much much out of it if you approach it from a moralistic point of view. The whole point of the Ripley books is to blur the line between good and evil, questioning the popular morality, showing that we're all closer to Tom than we like to pretend. If you disagree with that view, Ripley's Game will likely be just as off-putting to you as Ripley Under Ground, since it directly involves Tom bringing a so-called innocent man into his moral world.